A literature review was undertaken in order to compare the gatekeeping forces present in a music radio station and a news organization Findings were then presented to a radio program director for comments Results show music radio to be both a leader and a follower of public opinion Music programmers may choose individual songs to introduce to their audience but it is the gatekeeping environment that guides the choices a programmer makes

I make all the music decisions myself

The above quote was given by the program director of a country music radio station who participated in an interview intended to offer insight in the pressures he encounters programming new music on his radio station On the surface it is a true statement The choice of which songs will be played rests in this one persons hands He has delegated his employees no power to reverse his decisions nor augment them in any way Still it cannot be ignored that this program director does not make decisions within a vacuum Forces are at work molding the decisions he makes

The purpose of this paper is two fold The first is to outline the academic research conducted regarding gatekeeping namely the research regarding the choice of songs for a music radio station And secondly to offer the comments of two music radio programmers regarding what academe has written about their position1 Results of this study offer insight into what will be termed the program directors environment of choice

An environment of outside forces helping to define what choices are made by a gatekeeper is not a new concept Shoemaker 1991 Lewin 1947 the originator of the word gatekeeping wrote that to understand how a gate works is to understand the forces that help to determine the decisions of the gatekeeper

The gatekeeping forces at work in a newsroom that influence the choices of which stories to print or broadcast have been well documented at both the individual and group level Epstein 1973 Martin 1988 Tuchman 1978 White 1950 as have the forces in a radio stations choice of new music Hesbacher 1974 Kelliher 1981 Rothenbuhler 1985

This discussion will deal mostly with gatekeeping studies that involve individual gatekeepers The radio gatekeepers in this study works as individuals and this comparison will stay at the same level of analysis

Rothenbuhler 1985 outlined five forces at work upon a radio music gatekeepers decisions the music industry providing the universe of music to choose from industry influences such as tip sheets and record representatives the belief one is part of a larger community of programmers and in turn must follow with that crowd intrapersonal experiences and radio consultants These five forces are at work in most radio music decisions and all can be equally strong in swaying a choice of new music The following discussion will use these five topics for comparison

The music industry provides the universe of music to choose from

Sigal 1986 wrote that sources make the news A bold statement but many gatekeeper studies uphold the idea Abbot Brassfield 1989 Brown Bybee Wearden Straughan 1989 Smith 1993 One study suggested that over two-thirds of one radio stations local newscasts were make up from information provided by sources Burns 1994 A reporter cannot eye-witness every event being printed or broadcast so source-constructed stories have become a large part of putting out a news product Drew 1972 Gans 1979

Music radio is also dependent on sources for the product it puts out a music playlist Negus 1993 Yet music radios dependence on sources differs from the source dependence outlined by Sigal 1986 Music radio is very close to being as is the case of the radio stations in this study totally dependent on sources that provide music Rothenbuhler 1985

It is well known that radio programmers take direction in what music to choose from varied sources such as tip sheets record sales music representatives and consultants Frith 1988 Keith 1991 However these directed choices are made almost solely form the music that the record companies provide Burns 1996 The program directors in this study agree One noted that he only chooses new music from what comes out of Nashville He does not seek local talent nor will he offer a great deal of consideration to local artists that approach him His reasoning is that he wants to play hits not find them The other stated that he was often approached by local music groups but never seriously considered playing the music they brought to him

This suggests that the music gatekeeper is the second step in the process The first choice of music is made by a source at the national level Music companies provide the universe of music and the program director then picks only from the allotted songs An equivalent scenario in a newsroom would be a reporter who would never go out to cover a story but rather create newscasts solely through the text sound or video that was sent to him or her by outside sources

This was not always the case Radio personal in the 1950s and early 1960s did see themselves as people who were employed to seek out new talent and in turn play their records in order to make hits Ennis 1992 McPhee Ennis Meyerson 1953 Today radio programmers still believe airplay makes songs hits as do the program directors in this study but have long since stopped being the talent scouts for their own airwaves Breen 991 Kojan 1993 Maxwell 1995 Sources for new music mostly the music industry now perform that job almost exclusively This is true in the case of the radio stations in this study

Industry influences such as tip sheets and record representatives

Except for national newscasts and newspapers news organizations place a great deal of emphasis on what is happening locally Abbott Brassfield 1989 Burns 1994 Martin 1988 Music radio does not It responds to mostly national level influences Hesbacher 1974 Kinosian 1992

Denver 1994 wrote that local listener requests are being given little weight if any at all in music decisions Call-Out research calling listeners for input into music decisions was a staple of music radio programming in the 1970s Today call-out research is being used mainly to test playlists after they have been created and have received air-play if the research is used at all Kojan 1992

Again the program directors in this study concur No music testing is done before they add new songs to their playlists Both believe it is impossible to test a song until the audience has heard it a few times One program director said Call-out research has been abolished because it was simply too time consuming and offered the same results I expected before I made the calls As for requests both program directors gave them very little weight One program director reasoned that requests will only play a part in new music choice if there were an overwhelming number for just one song but that rarely happened before a song was added to his playlist The other believes that if he caters to requests he might be only catering to the small group of people active enough to call and their music tastes may not represent the mass audience

The belief one is part of a larger community of programmers and in turn must follow with that crowd

Drews 1972 study of television beat reporters outlined three major types of considerations that individual gatekeepers will take into account when making choices Reporter A noted he chose stories based on what he felt were the expectations of his audience Reporter B chose stories due to what he felt were the expectations of his organization and reporter C chose stories due to what he felt were the expectations of a newsman

As implied by Drew 1972 and as stated by Shoemaker 1991 individual gatekeepers deal with both inter- and intrapersonal forces in making their decisions These forces will also act on a radio music director to influence the choices he or she makes from the pool of music presented by the outside sources

Drews 1972 reporter A noted that he chose stories due to the expectations of his audience The radio programmer deals with such a decision in choosing what music will make the playlist that week yet the choice is a much more confined one than the beat reporter or the editor of a news medium That beat reporter could have chosen from any story that presented itself or was presented to him The same is not true of new music and not just because of record companies providing the universe of songs to choose from A radio programmer works under a self-imposed restriction in what songs he or she can choose a format

Radio stations cater to what Rothenbuhler terms taste communities Rothenbuhler 1985 p209 An audience is attracted to a radio station because of the music it plays and radio stations must continue to cater to this taste community in order to sustain its listeners Ruffner 1972-73 An example would be a classical music radio station not adding a heavy metal song to its playlist That song choice would be far outside of the expectations or listening tradition of the taste community Hesbacher Clasby Anderson and Berger 1976

Today those boundaries or formats are becoming more than just broad genres of music Pavia 1983 Just as the beat reporter above made his decisions in regards to what he felt his audience wanted so does the radio programmer One program director in this study noted that no matter how popular a hard rock song becomes he will not play it It is not country music his format

Even the formats of music themselves are beginning to become more narrow Radio as Narrowcasting 1989 New type of 1989 For instance one of the radio stations in this study has begun marketing itself as New Young Country This narrows the choices the music programmer can make to even more than just country music The restriction might make the music programmer reconsider playing the new George Jones song over the latest song by Garth Brooks simply because of his want to maintain the stations New Young Country image

Describing radio as ever narrowing formats is not to say that other mediums are not doing the same Television does have single topic formats such as ESPN for sports and the print media does have narrowcasted newspapers Dizzard 1994 Fitzgerald 1994 Levine 1990 Yet those are specialty items in those media and narrowcasting to taste communities is not the overwhelming method of programming for television and print the way it is for radio The vast majority of television and newspapers are general-interest formats There is no general-interest radio format

Drews 1972 reporter B chose stories that he felt were within the expectations of his news organization But it was not just the local newsroom that provided those expectations Whitney 1982 writes that journalists see themselves as more than being just part of more than just their own staff Journalists and communication professionals in general see themselves as part of a professional community Tuchman 1978

As Rothenbuhler 1985 wrote the feeling of being part of a larger community even though radio is predominately a local medium is prevalent in music choice Rothenbuhler asked a music programmer if he always played what the national music companies requested to which the programmer answered that he did hoping not to look stupid in front of his programming peers

Hesbacher et al 1976 wrote that radio programming is not at all independent It relies on choosing songs in alignment with the radio community as a whole

Radio programmers rely on tip sheets to help them make their programming decisions but most of those tip sheets are made up from other radio stations airplay charts Burns 1995 Pavia 1983 This is an example of the radio programming community keeping tabs on what music choices are the ones to make

There are exceptions to these statements Kelliher 1981 noted that the largest market radio stations are less likely to be susceptible to tip sheet pressures seeing themselves as a leader in the field They are leading the smaller market radio stations that follow and emulate their playlists Greenfield 1989

One program director in this study stated he does not feel enough of a sense of being part of a larger community that another radio stations playlist would sway his choices He does see how a less experienced programmer might follow a larger more successful station in order to make correct choices Even so later in the interview the program director stated that he follows the playlists of two specific radio stations one in Detroit and one in Cleveland each week in Radio and Records a radio trade magazine The second program director stated he often checked the Radio and Records playlist pages in order to not make a choice outside of the norm

Intrapersonal influences

Drews 1972 reporter C was most concerned with his own expectations of what a reporter should be This is an example of Shoemakers 1991 idea of intra-individual gatekeeping past experiences and observations creating biases that will help to shape future decisions

Denver 1993 and Love 1994 wrote that radio music choice is today done mainly through gut-instinct This entails hiring a person who has a great deal of experience in the field of radio programming and allowing him or her to draw off past experiences in order to make choices for playlists In addition Routt McGrath and Weiss 1978 wrote that most programming decisions are made with very little knowledge of who is actually listening The audience is known to the programmer through statements of demographics and ratings results Decisions are made because of format more than audience members Kinosian 1992 If gut-instinct is the method of choice then the intra-individual forces are arguably the strongest forces at work upon the music gatekeeper

The concept of making gut-instinct new music choices is employed by both program directors in this study One eluded to the term without being prompted after 24 years of doing this I make my decision from the gut He admits that he was hired because of his experience and success in making programming choices

Radio consultant

Rothenbuhlers 1985 final gatekeeping force is the radio consultant Since 1985 the time of Rothenbuhlers study the role of a radio consultant has changed The 1980s were the hayday of radio consultants Helton 1985a Helton 1985b Pond 1987 Often consultants took on the position of a network making all radio decisions for the station Rutkowski 1989 Wood 1990 Local program directors were there to simply carry out the demands of the consultant Garrett 1989 Ross 1988

This heavy-handed approach to consulting is not practiced much today Alexander 1994 Consultants are being hired for their ability to offer suggestions and research in the local rather than national markets Kinosian 1992 Helton 1994 Denver 1994 Stark 1991

Both program directors in this study use a consultant They speak once or twice a week to discuss the music choices already made and neither consultant lives in the same state as the program director One program director stated he uses the consultant for input but still makes his own decisions His reasoning for going against a consultants advice is that theyll fire me before they fire the consultant The other program director only used the consultant because the owner of the station demanded it He stated the consultants advise carried very little weight on his new music decisions

Since Rothenbuhlers 1985 study programming has changed to the point where the consultant is no longer an overt influence in the choice of new music

There are other forces or in this case limitations not mentioned by Rothenbuhler 1985 at work at a radio station that are not felt as strongly in television or print These include governmental limitations such as tower height power and assignment to AM or FM frequency Cohen 1988 This limits the programmer or the radio station to play only what the audience that they have for the most part inherited will listen to The audience will only change if people who make up the audience change move or leave the market


This study does not mean to imply that a radio programmer must yield to the above described environment of choice On the contrary there is no particular reason why a programmer could not resist the environment and choose only local music through significant audience research But they do not Radio music programming has become quite routine and dependent on sources to the point where broad statements such as the ones above can be made

The forces at work have todays programmer following national trends more than local and using his or her own experiences more than audience member input to choose music This process in the choice of new music leads to the radio introducing songs to the audience rather than the other way around This is the same agenda setting type of introduction of issues used in the news media McCombs Shaw 1972 The radio listening audience looks to the media to find new music rather than seeking it out for themselves Burns 1995

In terms of media effects the results of this study beg the question is radio a leader or a follower in terms of public opinion

The radio station that plays new music appears to be both In a micro-level study such as an agenda-setting study the station appears to be the leader of the audience by choosing what new songs will be played New music decisions are made mainly by gut-instinct and presented to an audience The audience then becomes a small participant in the micro-processing letting the radio station know their feelings regarding specific songs through some slower channels such as requests or research conducted by the radio station itself

It is at the macro-level where a new music radio station becomes the follower of an audiences opinion New music decisions are made by gatekeepers influenced by audience and industry forces Although the program directors in this study did choose to play a specific song their hand was forced by the audience they are attempting to serve The one program director in this study knows that any song he chooses will have to be country But it also has to be one he feels his audience would enjoy In fact what he calls gut-instinct is his experience knowledge and past success in providing audiences with what they want Here the audience is leading the decisions of the program director

The environment of choice that music radio programmers work within has all but isolated the choice of new music to the radio station itself with little or no input from individual audience members Yet on a greater level the audiences tastes in music are the ultimate force behind which songs the program director chooses

Rothenbuhler 1984 and Burns 1995 refer to this micro-level leading of the audience as an agenda-setting process under the environment of choice If agenda setting does indeed apply then research must be undertaken to better understand the relationship between the music radio gatekeeping process and the audience that consumes and in turn helps to guide the choices offered


1The first program director interview took place October 25 1995 The program director is employed by the number one rated radio station in the Toledo Ohio area The second program director interview took place August 15 1996 The program director is employed by a station in central Pennsylvania


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